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In Kazakhstan, Putin again seizes on unrest to try to expand influence

But if the turmoil in Kazakhstan has once again exposed the
vulnerability of the strongman leaders whom the Kremlin has trusted to keep
order, it has also presented Russia with yet another opportunity to reassert
its influence in its former Soviet domain, one of Putin’s most cherished
long-term goals.

The arrival in Kazakhstan of 2,500 troops from a Russian-led
military alliance amid continuing spasms of violent protest was the fourth time
in two years that Moscow has flexed its muscle in neighbouring states — Belarus,
Armenia and Ukraine being the other three — that the West has long tried to
woo.

The spectacle of a country like Kazakhstan “that seems big
and strong” falling into disarray so quickly has come as a shock, said Maxim
Suchkov, acting director of the Institute for International Studies at the
Moscow State Institute of International Relations. But it has also shown how,
with the exception of Ukraine, in the former Soviet republics that have tried
to balance between East and West, “boom, you get a crisis and they turn to
Russia.”

And once Russian troops arrive, they seldom, if ever, go
home. Suchkov said that the unrest in Kazakhstan can be seen as a “serious
crisis that Russia is interested in turning into an opportunity.”

Yet, many question how many brush fires can spring up around
Russia’s borders before a similar conflagration is ignited at home.

“If something like this can happen in Kazakhstan,” said
Scott Horton, a law lecturer at Columbia University in New York who has advised
officials in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries over two decades, “it
can certainly happen in Russia, too.”

Other analysts say that as much as Putin delights at unrest
in Europe and the United States as evidence that democracy is failing, he takes
little pleasure in turmoil on Russia’s own doorstep, no matter what the
short-term opportunity.

All the same, Horton said, “Putin is playing, or perhaps
overplaying, a weak hand very well.”

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It wouldn’t be the first time.

After offering in August 2020 to provide what he called
“comprehensive assistance” to help President Alexander Lukashenko of
neighboring Belarus halt a wave of huge protests, Putin then sent
“peacekeepers” to stop a vicious war over disputed territory between Armenia
and Azerbaijan. Russia has stationed more than 100,000 troops on its border
with Ukraine to press demands that Kyiv abandon its yearslong flirtation with
NATO.

Among the soldiers sent to Kazakhstan were members of the
45th Brigade, an elite Spetsnaz, or special forces, unit infamous for its
operations in the first and second wars in Chechnya, the once restive but now
brutally pacified Caucasus region of Russia. The brigade has also been active
in South Ossetia, a region of Georgia at the center of that country’s 2008 war
with Russia; in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014; and in Syria.

How much this assertive role really contributes to Putin’s
long-standing goal of restoring Russian dominance over much of the former
Soviet sphere is a matter of heated debate.

In Ukraine, it has mainly achieved the opposite, turning
what had been a generally Russia-friendly population in large parts of the
country into a sworn enemy. It has also set nerves on edge outside the former
Soviet space and played into the hands of anti-Russian hawks, reviving a
previously dormant debate in Sweden and Finland about whether they should join
or at least more closely associate with NATO.

When Kazakhstan bolted from the Soviet Union three decades
ago, it held the world’s fourth-biggest stock of nuclear weapons, vast reserves
of oil and so much promise and peril that Secretary of State James A. Baker
III, rushed to the new country to try to cement ties by drinking vodka with its
leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the sauna and accepting blows from a tree
branch.

“Get me the president of the United States on the phone,”
the US ambassador to Moscow at the time, Robert S Strauss, who was also there,
joked to the security detail. “His secretary of state is buck naked, and he’s
being beaten by the president of Kazakhstan.”

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Since then, Kazakhstan has given up its nuclear arms,
welcomed American energy giants like Chevron and Exxon Mobil to develop its oil
fields and become such a trusted partner that, in a message to its current leader
last September, President Joe Biden told President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev that
“the United States is proud to call your country a friend.”

Throughout, however, people have been beaten, not just
playfully in the sauna but viciously in detention centers and on the street.
While its record of repression may be less severe than in other former Soviet
republics in Central Asia, like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to
Amnesty International, it does include widespread “torture and other ill
treatment in penitentiary institutions.”

But in the post-Soviet revival of the Great Game, the
19th-century struggle between colonial powers across Central Asia, human rights
have never been a particularly important factor in the calculations of the
United States — and even less so in those of its main competitors in the
region, Russia and, over the past decade, China.

For Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh tycoon who fled into exile
after falling out with his former patron, Nazarbayev, the current wave of
protests and the Kazakh government’s appeal to Moscow for military help to
crush them is proof that the West miscalculated and handed Russia a big win.

Kazakhstan, he said Thursday as Russian troops deployed,
succeeded in “putting the international community to sleep” with promises of
big contracts. “The result: Kazakhstan is now under the boot of Putin, who
takes advantage of this to extend his power.”

Steve LeVine, author of “The Oil and The Glory,” a chronicle
of the struggle between Moscow and Washington in the region after the collapse
of communism, said America’s understanding of Kazakhstan in its early years as
an independent state was “almost entirely” through the Tengiz oil fields.

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But, he added, Kazakhstan still developed into a far more
stable, prosperous and tolerant country than its neighbors. “Kazakhstan is not
a democracy, but it is a Central Asian democracy,” he said. “The region is run
by strongmen.”

Such leaders, to Putin’s dismay, have proved surprisingly
brittle, a fact that has repeatedly confronted the Kremlin along its borders
with eruptions of the kind of discontent it has sought to keep bottled up at
home. But their weakness has also made Putin the indispensable protector that
they turn to in times of crisis.

Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at
Barnard College in New York and an authority on Central Asia, said that Russia
is unlikely to demand immediate concessions from Tokayev but has gained strong
leverage, upsetting Kazakhstan’s previous efforts to avoid tilting too far
toward either Moscow or Washington.

“Kazakhstan always tried to maintain a balancing act,” he
said. “This is all about regime survival. State security needs have been
reconfigured to fit the needs of those in power.”

Kazakh authorities say that dozens of protesters have died
in the unrest so far, with many more injured, and that 18 security officers
have been killed. If the clashes drag on, the Kremlin could wind up alienating
a broad swath of the Kazakh population, which in large cities like Almaty often
speaks Russian and had been relatively pro-Russian. That would repeat the
scenario in Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment has become so strong that it
is unlikely to subside for years or decades.

But Tokayev, who took over as president in 2019 from
Nazarbayev, the leader Baker joined in the sauna, is now beholden to Russia for
support in suppressing protesters and in removing Nazarbayev from his last post
as head of the National Security Council on Wednesday. Such assistance is
seldom offered free of charge, particularly not by as canny a tactician as
Putin.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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